There’s an interesting passage in Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, in which he discusses the contrasting experience of Amazon Mechanical Turk by users and workers. From loc 719:

While AMT is profiting robustly, 11 it has –following the observations of several workers –not made significant updates to its user interfaces since its inception, and the operational staff appears to be overwhelmed and burned out. Turkers have written and shared various browser scripts to help themselves solve specific problems. While this is a wonderful example of mutual aid among AMT workers, it is also yet another instance of how the invisible labor of Turkers remains uncompensated. While people are powering the system, MTurk is meant to feel like a machine to its end-users: humans are seamlessly embedded in the algorithm. AMT’s clients are quick to forget that it is human beings and not algorithms that are toiling for them –people with very real human needs and desires.

It’s easy to slip into characterising platforms in terms of our familiar experiences of them as end-users. This is an important reminder that their user-friendly character is a contingent expression of the interests the corporation has in maximising user engagement, rather than anything intrinsic to the technology of the platform itself. 

This is important for analytical reasons, but it’s also a crucial prop to the ideology of platform capitalism, sustaining an idea of platforms as user-friendly spaces which mediate interactions determined by external factors. As opposed to deeply rule-governed systems, with the content of those rules being determined by commercial imperatives. From loc 735:

Mechanical Turk starts to look even less positive when considering that in the case of labor conflicts, Bezos’s company remains strictly hands-off, insisting that AMT is merely providing a technical system. Why would they have anything to do with the labor conflicts occurring on the platform? This would be like Apple owning the factories in Shenzhen where its iPhones are assembled, but then rejecting any responsibility for the brutal work regimes and suicides of the workers in these factories because Foxconn controls daily operations.

This was back in 2012. There have been many more since and will be many more in future. From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 2871-2887:

But Uber was going to need more than Tweets to sway the DC city council. First, colleagues remember, Kalanick sought the backing of the DC tech community and tried to enlist the support of the online-deals company Living Social, based in Virginia. When they didn’t respond, Kalanick decided to go right to his customer base. He sent an impassioned letter to thousands of Uber users in DC, complaining that the city council would make it impossible for the company to lower fares and ensure reliable service. “The goal [of the Uber amendments] is essentially to protect a taxi industry that has significant experience in influencing local politicians,” he wrote, basically accusing Cheh and her colleagues of corruption. 16 Then he supplied the phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Twitter handles of all twelve members of the DC city council and urged his customers to make their voices heard. The next day he posted a public letter to the council members, writing ominously, “Why would you so clearly put a special interest ahead of the interests of those who elected you? The nation’s eyes are watching to see what DC’s elected officials stand for.” Mary Cheh was taken aback by the ferocity of the response. Within twenty-four hours, the council members received fifty thousand e-mails and thirty-seven thousand Tweets with the hashtag #UberDCLove. 17 When they arrived for the last session of the summer on July 10, Cheh’s colleagues all turned to her in confusion and fear. The amendments, she told me years later, had been “a toss to Jim Graham and the taxi drivers,” and now, with the weight of the internet bearing down on the council members, the amendments clearly weren’t worth it.

One recurring theme in Brad Stone’s excellent The Upstarts is how technological assumptions encoded into legislation become focal points for conflicts with ‘disruptive’ companies. For instance, as loc 2348 illustrates, the novel dispatch system used by Uber complicated the distinction between taxis and livery cars:

Stressing that Uber cars were not hailed or even electronically hailed like taxis, the pair emphasized that Uber cars fit the legal definition of livery cars and were prearranged; it just so happened that the prearrangement occurred five minutes ahead of time instead of sixty.

But these distinctions also become ideologically loaded, with the antiquated assumptions effectively inviting us to sweep them away as part of our great disruptive project. This is something even Uber’s lawyers were moved by. From loc 2996:

She didn’t, pointing out that taxi regulations had been crafted decades before smartphones and internet ratings systems were invented. “I was personally always of the philosophy that the great companies, the PayPals of the world, don’t get scared by regulation,” she told me. “I never wanted to be the kind of lawyer that just said no.”

There’s an interesting extract in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, concerning discretionary effort: what could your employees do if they were properly motivated? I’m fascinated by this concept because of its open-ended character. Once one begins to think like this, it’s always possible to imagine your employees doing more. The full actualisation of discretionary effort is a vanishing point and this creates a space in which bullshit thrives: lionising managers for successfully robbing you of a life outside work, as well as all manner of motivational idiocy with little discernible relation to outcomes. From loc 2498:

Kalanick simply directed his team to work harder. “Never ask the question ‘Can it be done?’ ” he was fond of saying at the time, recalls one employee. “Only question how it can be done.” Kalanick left for LeWeb but stayed in touch from his hotel room over Skype video chat, his disembodied head still a loud, demanding presence in the office. Everyone was working around the clock, on little sleep and ebbing patience. “Someone turn Travis off!” yelled the new chief of product, a former Google manager named Mina Radhakrishnan, when Kalanick berated them for not having the service ready in Paris on time. Conrad Whelan, the company’s first engineer, recalls spending every day in the office, from 7: 30 a.m. to midnight, including weekends, for three weeks straight before the Paris launch. “This is the biggest thing I will say about Travis,” he told me years later. “He came to us and said, ‘Look, we are internationalizing and launching in Paris,’ and every single engineer was saying, ‘That is not possible, there is so much work, we will never be able to do it.’ But we got it done. It wasn’t perfect. But that was one of those moments where I was like, ‘This Travis guy, he is really showing us what is possible.’ ”

When the Uber co-founders recount the story of their project, they stress the importance of the consumer to it. This might seem like familiar rhetoric but I want to suggest it reflects a deep (and problematic) commitment. In The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, we see how the early idea for Uber came to Garrett Camp when he was a young multi-millionaire living in San Francisco. After StumbleUpon was acquired by eBay, he found himself young, free and wealthy. From loc 617-632:

Camp continued to work at eBay after the sale, and he was now young, wealthy, and single, with a taste for getting out of the house more often. This is when he ran headlong into San Francisco’s feeble taxi industry. For decades, San Francisco had deliberately kept the number of taxi medallions capped at around fifteen hundred. Medallions in the city were relatively inexpensive and couldn’t be resold, and owners could keep the permit as long as they liked if they logged a minimum number of hours on the road every year. So new permits usually became available only when drivers died, and anyone who applied for one had to wait years to receive it. Stories abounded about a driver waiting for three decades to get a medallion, only to die soon after. The system guaranteed a healthy availability of passengers for the taxi companies even during slow times and ensured that full-time drivers could earn a living wage. But demand for cars greatly exceeded supply and so taxi service in San Francisco, famously, sucked. Trying to hail a cab in the outer neighborhoods near the ocean, or even downtown on a weekend night, was an exercise in futility. Getting a cab to take you to the airport was a stomach-churning gamble that could easily result in a missed flight.

He was, as Brad Stone puts it, “habitually restless, frustrated by inefficiencies, and armed with a willingness to challenge authority”. He contrived an initial solution of calling all yellow taxi companies when he needed a cab, in order to take the first one that arrived. He quickly found himself blacklisted (loc 647). He further explored how to game the existing system, learning about the mechanisms which frustrated him in the process. He developed an extensive working knowledge of how the collective interests of taxi drivers frustrated his interests as a wealthy young consumer. This generic propensity of the taxi industry to frustrate was coupled with the capacity of individual taxi drivers to fail to show such young consumers the respect they felt they deserved. From loc 771-786:

On a separate night in Paris, the group went for drinks on the Champs-Élysées and then to an elegant late-night dinner that included wine and foie gras. At 2: 00 a.m., somewhat intoxicated after a night of revelry, they hailed a cab on the street. Apparently they were speaking too boisterously, because halfway through the ride home, the driver started yelling at them. McCloskey was sitting in the middle of the backseat, and, at five feet ten inches tall, she’d had to prop her high heels on the cushion between the two front seats. The driver cursed at them in French and threatened to kick them out of the car if they didn’t quiet down and if McCloskey didn’t move her feet. She spoke French and translated; Kalanick reacted furiously and suggested they get out of the car. The experience seemed to harden their resolve. “It definitely lit a fire,” McCloskey says. “When you are put in a situation where you feel like there’s an injustice, that pisses Travis off more than anything. He couldn’t get over it. People shouldn’t have to sit in urine-filled cabs after a wonderful night and be yelled at.” That cantankerous Paris taxicab driver may have left an indelible mark on transportation history.

The instinct here is framed in terms of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ when it is articulated. But the basic moral sentiment is how dare they put their interests over ours? It’s a consumerist entitlement rooted in the extremely specific experience of affluent young consumers. Once embedded, every attempt to preserve the status quo can be experienced as an extension of this basic affront to self-importance. What appears to regulators as an incomprehensible disregard for legality (“You can’t just open a restaurant and say you are going to ignore the health department” as they were told in an early clash, reported on loc 1693) is experienced by ‘the upstarts’ as a commendable failure to be bullied, a refusal to take shit from anyone, whether it’s haughty French taxi drivers or municipal bureaucrats serving their interests. Their professed concern for regulation can be explained away as an allegiance to taxi drivers who don’t know their place. From loc 2348:

Still embittered by his experience with Christiane Hayashi and the SFMTA, Kalanick instructed Kochman to ignore New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and its rules, reasoning that its regulations, under the guise of consumer safety, were really there to protect entrenched taxi interests.

What I’m describing as a moral project operates on two levels: an intellectual critique of entrenched interests and their failure to adequately serve consumers, as well as an underlying affectivity generated when entrenched privilege meets perceived wrong-doing. The former derives its shoving power from the latter. This is why I suspect the Uber co-founders might not simply be driving towards automation out of economic interest, but rather actually be able to take some perverse delight in rendering taxi drivers redundant as a category. As the Uber CEO excitedly put it when presented with a self-driving car for the first time: “The minute your car becomes real, I can take the dude out of the front seat” (loc 3657).

And this moral project is one it’s demonstrably possible to enlist others into. From loc 2467:

After Tusk joined as a consultant, Uber executives started meeting regularly with Ashwini Chhabra and his boss, David Yassky, chairman of the TLC. Officials in Bloomberg’s business-friendly administration, it turned out, were inclined to look favorably on a technology startup trying to change New York’s crusty taxi industry, which had resisted modernizing its vehicles and installing electronic credit card readers. 4 But Uber first needed to play by the rules. To truly appeal to New York drivers, Uber was going to have to register as a base.

Pity those who find themselves on the wrong side of the great disruptive project:

When asked about driverless cars, he said that he was excited for the technology because it could bring prices down, but he didn’t express concern about unemployment for drivers. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car, you’re paying for the other dude in the car,” Kalanick said. As for the tens of thousands of drivers who relied on his company to support their families, he shrugged. “This is the way of the world,” he said, “and the world isn’t always great. We all have to find ways to change.”

From Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler, pg 136:

Uber has defended surge pricing on the basis that a higher price will act as an incentive for more drivers to work during peak periods. It is hard to evaluate this argument without seeing internal data on the supply response by drivers, but on the face of it the argument does not seem to be compelling. First of all, you can’t just decide on the spur of the moment to become an Uber driver, and even existing drivers who are either at home relaxing or at work on another job have limited ability to jump in their cars and drive when a temporary surge is announced. One indication of the limits on the extent to which the supply of drivers can respond quickly is the very fact that we have seen multiples as high as ten. If thousands of drivers were ready to leap into their cars when a surge is announced, large surges in price would be fleeting.

A great analysis of a hugely important case being heard in the near future:

The immediate threat takes the form of an antitrust class action lawsuit against its co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, which will be litigated in the Manhattan courtroom of Federal District Judge Jed Rakoff starting on November 1. At issue is Uber’s mobile app, through which customers order on-demand car rides, and which customer Spencer Meyer alleges amounts to a price-fixing conspiracy. The question is whether independent Uber drivers using the app, all charging the same price and implementing “surge pricing” at the same time, are violating the Sherman Antitrust Act’s prohibition against any “combination … or conspiracy … in restraint of trade.”

The lawsuit puts Uber and other companies in the online economy on a collision course with antitrust law. It also raises fundamental questions about how American companies treat their workers. It’s not surprising that tech companies can make a great deal of money by skirting employment, antitrust, and even anti-discrimination laws. But do we want them to? Some argue that the Uber conundrum calls for the creation of a third “independent worker” category of employment that gives it the control it needs to make its business model work, while safeguarding the flexibility its drivers prize. If courts and policymakers agree, it would effectively carve out a tech-sector exception to the regulatory principles governing the economy since the New Deal and the Gilded Age.’s-antitrust-problem

The questions asked at the end are precisely the ones currently preoccupying me:

 Are the new behemoths of the tech sector innovators that make the economy more efficient by “disrupting” antiquated business models? Or are they just the trusts of a second Gilded Age, their new-fangled apps the equivalent of the railroad networks that monopolized commerce and access to markets 126 years ago, when the Sherman Act first took effect?’s-antitrust-problem

A really fascinating read on Harvard Business Review:

We found that through Uber’s app design and deployment, the company produces what many reasonable observers would define as a managed labor force. Drivers have the freedom to log in or log out of work at will, but once they’re online, their activities on the platform are heavily monitored. The platform redistributes management functions to semiautomated and algorithmic systems, as well as to consumers.

Algorithmic management, however, can create a deal of ambiguity around what is expected of workers — and who is really in charge. Uber’s neutral branding as an intermediary between supply (drivers) and demand (passengers) belies the important employment structures and hierarchies that emerge through its software platform.

Notes for a panel I’m doing in April with Claire Aitchison, Inger Mewburn & Pat Thomson. The idea for the panel was partly provoked by this Discover Society piece.

I’m an enthusiast about social media for academics. But for all the examples I see around me of social media enriching and enhancing scholarly practice, it’s hard not to be concerned by the broader context within which this is taking place. These problems are hugely worrying in their own right: the casualization of academic labour, the ceaseless ratcheting up of the expectations placed upon academics and the replacement of professional self-regulation by hierarchical audit all contribute to an environment I’ve talked about elsewhere, with my collaborator Filip Vostal, as the ‘accelerated academy’. But what I’m increasingly preoccupied by is how social media for academics doesn’t just take place within this context but rather influence how academics, individually and collectively, shape this context through resisting or reinforcing these pernicious tendencies.

It’s easy to see how social media for academics might fit into the ‘gig economy’ which we’re seeking to explore through this panel. It’s straight forward to imagine how rootless and nomadic academics would make themselves available through their online presence and mobile technology. What was once loftily conceived of as a vocation, though in reality more often simply a career, instead finds itself reduced to an endless iteration of ‘gigs’. In a way, the only thing I find implausible about this Doonesbury cartoon is the lack of digital technology in the world of employment it represents:


Digital technology further fragmenting the academic workforce, scattering overly earnest scholars who seek only to teach and research across the international system, measuring and scrutinising their activity as they are ranked hierarchically to determine who gets first access to gigs that are ever shrinking in number as MOOCs replace the bulk of university teaching. Is this the future we face?

There’s something dystopically intoxicating about this narrative. In fact that’s what makes me suspicious of it. The polarisation of the academic labour market was not something caused by digital technology and there’s no reason to assume it will be intensified by it. In fact, if we look at how doctoral students and early career researchers are using social media, we can see lots of examples of social media being used to enhance the autonomy of younger academics: raising their visibility, helping them create networks and sustain a sense of professional identity when their working lives are split across many institutions.

My point is not to counterpoise a ‘good news story’ to a ‘bad news story’. For what it’s worth, I do think the picture is pretty bleak. But if we reduce the uptake of social media by academics to an extension of managerial power then we’ll struggle to understand exactly what influence it is having. If we impute too much to the technology then we fail to do justice to the social processes through which any technological influence is necessarily mediated.

Much depends on how social media is taken up by academics. The potential outgrowths of it are diverse: everything from what I’ve elsewhere described as ‘networked solidarity’ (including, though not limited to, satire) to displays of academic incivility which can only fairly be described as ‘trolling’. The key question for me concerns which of these uses become more likely under present circumstances and how these influence might, in turn, feed back into changing that context or reinforcing its existing characteristics.

I wonder if the key issue might simply be why people are turning to social media. My fear is that we are seeing a growing sense in which people feel they have to use social media. There are many potential reasons why this perception might be becoming widespread:

– how central social media is becoming to debates about impact and public engagement
– the growing frequency with which training is offered in universities
– the message this implies about the desirability of engagement
– people seeking contributions for things like collective blogs
– universities, departments and research centres seeking contributions for such projects obviously has an additional dimension to it
– stories about career success founded on an online presence: a sense that this stuff is crucial for career opportunities, without anyone being able to specify quite why this is the case, perhaps propped up by a few mythical cases
– the anxiety about not missing out on opportunities which inevitably abounds within an unhealthy job market.

My fear is that if ‘social media is the new black’, something which everyone is expected to do, instrumental concerns will come to squeeze out the more nebulous joys and satisfactions which can be found at present.

Social media for academics might provide a framework within which the ‘Uberisation of Higher Education’ becomes entrenched. But it might also provide a bulwark against it, facilitating solidarity and collective action between those who are nonetheless dispersed across many workplaces. We simply don’t know yet. But that’s why we have to be careful about how we conceptualise these platforms, the tools they offer for academics and what it means for them to be taken up within a changing landscape of higher education.

This is a fascinating buzzfeed article about Uber’s successful encroachment into the Las Vegas market, in the face of massive opposition:

But tonight, for the first time, there were Uber cars among the limos and cabs. One picked up a fare at Caesars Palace and embarked on what would have been one of the first Uber rides in Vegas. But before it could leave the hotel roundabout, the Uber was cut off by two unmarked cars, sirens blaring. Two men burst out, ordered everyone out of the Uber, and told the driver to put his hands on the car’s hood. They were masked and wearing bulletproof vests.

They were officers from the Taxicab Authority and the Nevada Transportation Authority (NTA), and they had been tasked with stopping Uber from doing business in Las Vegas until it acquired the proper approvals from the city and county. The driver was cited and fined. Hours later, the NTA filed an injunction application against Uber in Carson City, Nevada. (In subsequent testimony before The Senate Committee on Transportation, NTA chair Andrew MacKay claimed the agency was not on scene at the sting.)

The Vegas taxi market is massive, accruing $290,354,312 so far this year, as well as heavily protected by local government in a way few, if any, others are. This is what makes it such an interesting case for looking at the playbook uber is likely to bring to future disputes:

During its ascension to ride-hail market supremacy, the company developed and stress-tested an effective playbook for entering even the toughest of markets. A combination of clashing with local governments, grassroots activism, and lobbying, it brought Uber success in cities like Portland, Oregon, which vehemently opposed it. Uber brought that blueprint to bear on Vegas as well. It entered the market without permission; it called on locals to sign a petition to the governor; it hired more than a dozen of the best lobbyists in the state to make its case.

As on many other occasions, Uber began by unilaterally exempting themselves from existing regulatory structures:

On the morning of Oc. 24, Uber launched its UberX service in Las Vegas — apparently without permission to do so. The company didn’t have the required business license from Clark County, nor had it applied for one.

Uber claims that it didn’t think it needed to. But entering a market before it’s legal and asking for forgiveness rather than permission is a standard marker of the Uber playbook. Asked at a Nov. 25 hearing why it didn’t resolve any regulatory issues before operating, company attorney Don Campbell said to a District Court judge, “Because we don’t believe the statutes apply.” The company has long maintained that it’s a technology platform, not a transportation service; why should it need the common carrier license all taxi and limo companies require?

But this disregard for regulatory structured was actually rather suited to their new environment, characterised as it was by a “a kickback system built over decades and closely tied to the city’s tourism industry” and an obviously questionable degree of proximity between existing firms and the regulators. This goes some way to explaining the ensuing legislative battle, which Buzzfeed helpfully illustrate with this roadmap:

Astonishingly, in under two weeks, Uber and Lyft drivers have been cited 87 times by local police for “taking fares to and from McCarran International Airport without the business licenses to do so”. It’s this wilful disregard for regulatory structures, something which clearly pervades the company from top to bottom, which fascinates me about Uber (and to a lesser extent Lyft). Their emerging playbook for breaking into markets, as well as the sheer aggression they show when doing so, promises fireworks as they continue to enact their planned pivot into a global just-in-time logistics operation.

Uber is planning to raise up to $1 billion in new investment, only months after having raised the same amount. As Natasha Lomas observes, this raises an important question:

Why does a ride-hailing business that likes to claim it’s not a transportation company need such a massive money mountain behind it? It’s pretty clear Uber subsidizes the cost of rides as part of its market expansion acceleration strategy — as a way to undercut traditional taxi opposition and put pressure on local ride-hailing competition.

It’s also been spending big on trying to crack specific international markets, such as the Chinese market, where it faces some fast growing (and well funded) local competition — raising around $1.2 billion last month to fuel its growth there, and another $1 billion in July focused on India.

The company has also signaled its ambitions go beyond getting people from A to B, with merchant delivery programs, such as food delivery (Uber Eats) and a same-day courier service (Uber Rush), being piloted and soft launched in various cities.

It’s also engaged in driverless car tech research — envisaging an evolution of its platform, down the road, where Ubers are driven by robots rather than self-employed human ‘partners’. The meatsacks will just be sitting in the back.

She plausibly suggests that Uber’s ultimate goal is to become an ‘on demand logistics platform’. The overlap with Amazon’s long term ambitions here seems particularly interesting. But what is most pressing to me is the question of when, if at all, the rhetoric of the ‘sharing economy’ will be abandoned. 

There are strong prima facie grounds on which to argue that it functions as a discursive slight of hand, distracting attention from the terrifying scale of Uber’s ambitions. It would be an interesting exercise to try and evaluate this through a content analysis: how does Uber position itself in public, particularly in response to criticism? How, if at all, has this changed over time?